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The Fisherman: Hudson Valley Horror

Last October, I read a survey of recently published horror fiction in the New York Times. The newspaper’s critic favorably reviewed The Fisherman by John Langan. After adding the title to my ever-expanding reading list, I promptly forgot about it until the university Interlibrary Loan Department delivered it to my office a few weeks ago. (To those who frequent libraries, remember that your local library can find almost any book through this service.)

Jasper Francis Cropsey, Catskill Creek, 1850 (Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The novel begins with its narrator (call me: Abe) recalling a Saturday fishing trip ten years in his past. Before describing this event, Abe examines an even earlier chapter in his life. After the passing of his newlywed wife, he struggled with depression and alcohol. Eventually, he discovered solace in a very quiet, old-fashioned pastime: fishing. Through weekend mornings passed on the banks of tributaries of the Hudson River, Abe accepted his loss and emerged to enjoy life on its new, unforeseen terms. Later, Abe befriended a coworker, Dan, grieving from the loss of his wife and young twin sons, and the two became fishing buddies.

While waiting out a heavy rainstorm one weekend morning, the two friends chat with the cook at a favorite diner. Upon hearing their plan to fish at Dutchmen’s Creek, the cook, Howard, cautions them to pick another fishing hole. Then, he shares a long, detailed, and unsettling legend surrounding the Creek. As to be expected, Abe and Dan ignore Howard’s ominous tale. The Fisherman wouldn’t be much of novel if they followed his advice.

Soon after casting their lines at Dutchman’s Creek, Abe and Dan encounter a dark world existing along the fault lines of our own. From time to time, this world spills into ours, or mankind slips into it. I’ll refrain from exploring more of the story, lest I spoil the thrill for any reader.

John Langan presents a well-crafted and surprisingly well-written novel. This is not a knock on Mr. Langan; such high-caliber writing remains uncommon in genre fiction. The novel is built upon a complicated structure with several narrative layers and multiple points of view. Reportedly, Langan experienced difficulty in selling this novel: “serious” publishing houses found the manuscript to be too genre; genre publishers found it too literary. Let’s hope that Mr. Langan’s technical skill, strong prose, and superb story-telling set a new standard for horror fiction.

Aside from its literary value and captivating story, The Fisherman is imbued with local color. Langan captures the sights and textures of the Hudson Valley and the diction and culture of its people. The novel’s central characters, Abe and Dan, work at IBM. Abe enjoys the music scene in Kingston. The construction of the Ashokan Reservoir in Ulster County figures promptly in the legend of Dutchman’s Creek. Anyone hailing from New York State (sorry, not New York City or its Empire State periphery) will recognize the roadside diner and its chatty short-order cook. You can smell the coffee and picture the customers at the counter. The New York setting packs the story with life.

The Fisherman is a fine example of regional literature and horror fiction. Let’s hope that genre readers demand similarly sophisticated fiction. If you find yourself standing beside a river with a fishing pole in hand and fearing what might be tugging at your line, remember to thank John Langan.

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